America is not a better country because Derek Chauvin is going to spend time behind bars
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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 20/04/2021 (705 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
The State of Minnesota, a jury of his peers, put their collective knee on Derek Chauvin’s neck.
Twenty-four hours after they filed out of the courtroom, the jurors filed back in with a verdict: ex-cop Chauvin guilty on all counts.
Guilty of second-degree unintentional murder.
Guilty of third-degree “depraved” murder.
Guilty of manslaughter.
There is accountability for George Floyd, a Black man, life extinguished on May, 25, 2020, the air squeezed out of his lungs by the full weight of Chauvin’s body, white police officer, on his neck and shoulders, causing asphyxiation.
But justice for Floyd should have looked far different.
Justice, for the alleged offence of passing a counterfeit $20 bill — to buy a pack of smokes — should have been a ticket, a fine if proven that Floyd knew the scrip was phoney. Minnesota’s harshest penalty for passing counterfeit money under $1,000 is up one year in prison. Twenty bucks, on a first offence, would likely not have resulted in even a single night in jail.
Instead, the 46-year-old father of five paid with his life.
Four cops bundled him into a police car and Floyd resisted, claiming he suffered from claustrophobia. Three cops watched as Floyd was pressed against the pavement — for nine minutes and 29 seconds — including one who warned Chauvin that the suspect was no longer breathing, had no pulse. Yet Floyd was kept prone, not even turned into the side recovery position that would have permitted his lungs to expand, for those last three minutes.
As Floyd pleaded for mercy, gasped more than 20 times that he couldn’t breathe, called out for his dead mother.
A barbaric act, lacking all compassion, with total disregard for Floyd’s life. Indeed, disregard by Chauvin for his own behaviour, as the entire episode was being documented by citizen cellphone video, footage uploaded to social media that went viral, shocking the world.
It took everyone’s breath away.
While there was public rejoicing over the verdicts, a massive exhale across America, there is no assurance that anything will change. One ex-cop — fired by the Minneapolis Police Department — has been held liable for his crimes.
On all but three days this year, as of Monday, a civilian has been killed by police in the United States — 319 people — according to data collected by Mapping Police Violence, a research collaborative.
In 2020, Black people accounted for 28 per cent of those killed by police, despite making up only 13 per cent of the population.
Floyd wasn’t shot. But Statista Research provides these numbers for people shot to death by police, where the ethnicity of a victim has been confirmed:
2017: 457 white, 223 Black, 179 Hispanic.
2018: 399 white, 209 Black, 148 Hispanic.
2019: 370 white, 235 Black, 158 Hispanic.
2020: 457 white, 241 Black, 169 Hispanic.
All races have died at the hands of law enforcement, but none so much, so far out of proportion, as Blacks.
Over their life course, about one in every 1,000 Black men can expect to be killed by police, as per research published by the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America.
Just some of the names, among the most notorious of killings by police: Breonna Taylor, 26, shot dead in her home by plainclothes officers who allegedly were serving a search warrant on the wrong residence; Stephon Clark, 22, standing in his grandmother’s backyard when he was shot 20 times by police who believed he was holding a gun — it was a phone; Atatiana Jefferson, 28, shot through the window of her home as she played video games with a young nephew; Botham Jean, sitting on his coach eating ice cream when fatally shot by an off-duty officer after she entered his apartment, believing it was hers.
Daunte Wright, 20, stopped for a traffic violation and on an outstanding warrant, shot by a veteran officer who had allegedly intended to fire her Taser. That was on April 11, during the Chauvin trial, in a suburb of Minneapolis, amplifying tensions in the city.
If justice is served, it has only been sporadically and exceedingly rarely when the killer is a cop.
That is but one thread of the racial injustice that exists, which hasn’t gone away.
America is not a better country because Chauvin, 46, is going to spend a considerable time behind bars — sentencing, to be delivered in eight weeks, and doubtless appeal to follow. The maximum penalty for second degree murder is 40 years, but the median, as per sentencing guidelines, for an individual with no criminal record, like Chauvin, is 121/2 years. Judge Peter Cahill, however, can take into account several aggravating factors, including that there were children present at the scene, that more than three people were involved in the commission of a crime (the other officers, also canned, are to be tried this summer) and the “vulnerability” of Floyd, because he was handcuffed. And of course only two-thirds of the sentence would be served in custody, the rest on parole.
The gratitude expressed in the U.S. on Thursday evening for a righteous outcome, particularly among Black Americans, was almost … piteous. The victories have been so few, Black Lives Matter moving the needle, but not that much, for all the public protests and demonstrations. It is a never-ending cycle. Keep in mind that this is the country where Republican-backed bills have been put forward in 43 states that will create hurdles for tens of millions of voters, aimed at making it harder for Blacks to exercise their franchise.
Although this proceeding was framed as America on trial — an America that came up smelling like roses — that was profoundly not the case. This was about one man, one ex-cop and one hell of a damning video.
“It was a murder in the full light of day and it ripped the blinders off for the whole world to see,” President Joe Biden said from the White House afterwards. “The systemic racism that is a stain on our nation’s soul, the knee on the neck of justice for Black Americans. Profound fear and trauma. The pain, the exhaustion that Black and Brown Americans experience every single day.
“Today’s verdict is a step forward.”
What befell Floyd on Memorial Day traumatized everyone who witnessed it first-hand, the witnesses who were called to testify for the prosecution: the 17-year-old who shot that video, who said she still lies awake at night, condemning herself for not doing more to help the victim; the off-duty firefighter who wept recalling how the officers had prevented her from trying to medically assist Floyd; the man who broke down and sobbed, remembering how Floyd had called out before losing consciousness: “Mama”; the eight-year-old who said of what she saw: “I was sad and kind of mad.”
She has good reason to grow up fearing and loathing police.
Where would this trial have been without the incriminating video? The defence could summon only two days of evidence — Chauvin didn’t testify on his own behalf — leaning heavily on the usual exculpations, officers under threat, a combative suspect and refuting cause of death, laying the blame on Floyd’s drug use, pre-existing physical ailments, “excited delirium.” The cause of his own misfortune. Chauvin merely followed his training, which had been directly contradicted on the stand by his own police chief.
The verdict isn’t shallow, not at all, yet it feels somewhat hollow. Floyd is still dead and he ought not be. And America dodged a bullet, this one time, because it didn’t burn, as it might have, had the defendant been acquitted.
Surely Chauvin must have seen this reckoning coming. Except cops charged with murder always have history and qualified immunity and too many timid juries on their side.
Above the mask that covered half his face, Chauvin’s eyes jittered, shifting side to side as the judge read the verdicts.
Guilty. Guilty. Guilty.
All over in under 15 minutes.
All over for George Floyd 330 days ago. For a lousy phoney $20 bill.
Rosie DiManno is a Toronto-based columnist covering sports and current affairs for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @rdimanno